Kicking Racism On And Off The Pitch


By Farai Sevenzo

For those of us who love to procrastinate, watching football is the ultimate task-interfering cognition – and so up and down the lands where football is beamed, men and women are avoiding cleaning or doing one more wash of the clothes, or the cooking, or whatever task is at hand to spend 90 minutes plus extra time watching the beautiful game and the world’s best exponents of the art at play or battle.

Over this last month, however, the game has been bedevilled by the age-old argument over race.  It began with the captain of England receiving a four-match ban for using racially abusive language to a fellow professional more than a year ago. This then degenerated into split camps over the merits of the English Football Association’s “Let’s Kick Racism out of Football” campaign.

And the issue refused to go away as football fans witnessed appalling behaviour when the Serbian Under-21 squad met their English counterparts in Krusevac, where the crowd mimicked monkey noises every time black players touched the ball.

Players are encouraged to wear messages urging people not to tolerate racism. During dinner the other day I complained to my eastern European friends that with the meltdown of their communist concrete a couple of decades ago, nothing had changed in their attitudes to the world at large, that they were a closed and myopic people who were once happy to sing the communist songs and urge the workers of the world to unite and yet they did not have a single race relations act between them. It is embarrassing to see many of the world’s top leagues peppered by African talent being paid millions and still have idiots throwing bananas at the likes of Roberto Carlos and Christopher Samba and have the football mastery of Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry or Mario Balotelli reduced to the colour of the player’s skin – embarrassing for them. I went on about a time in African liberation movements when we all had pictures in the family albums of uncles and cousins being trained in the Soviet bloc, posing in snow in Romania or learning film-making or medicine in Moscow before the swing to the far right and the ugly love for all things Nazi amongst this vocal minority in 21st Century eastern Europe. My friends listened patiently to my rant and reminded me that my generalisations were just as myopic.

Their communist past was drunk with the utopian ideals of brotherhood for all, and why should they be expected to love the men their leaders kissed on the Kremlin parades or the African students they gave countless scholarships to?

And what is more, none of these former Eastern bloc countries invaded nations and looted their way through history and their lack of people of colour is simply because they were not Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Holland or Spain.

Of course they do not deserve a badge for not being colonialists but their race issues are Europe’s problems, where, as we all know, a man’s skin is his passport regardless of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile the great and the good are struggling to keep racism off the football pitches.

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It matters little to the racists that the football World Cup travelled to South Africa and is about to travel to Brazil – rainbow nations both if ever the label fitted – and the Football Association in England has had coaching staff and players wearing badges and T-shirts urging folk to kick racism out of the game.  South Africa held a very successful World Cup tournament in 2010. Of course the governing body of world football, Fifa, whose leader once told us that players should just shake hands and avoid name calling, pays the same lip service to the promised eradication of race-fuelled disagreements, but nothing changes.

In another game somewhere on the planet, sticks and stones will not break bones but words will continue to harm. The punishments are said to rarely fit the crimes and the game was being held hostage by the racists and more should be done.

The talk over racism lingered on and hung like a foul mist over the Euro 2012 competition in Poland and the Ukraine, and as last weekend’s matches ended, the row threatened to take in referees and officials too.

Besides passing onto our children how utterly precious their individual difference is and to value the same difference in others, how can we hope to trounce the racists by the statute books or by bigger bolder fines for millionaire federations and millionaire players?

Those that have killed off apartheid through the statute books have yet to find a way to erase it from people’s heads.

And whether you are a footballer or an idle shopper or making your first pilgrimage to Mecca or being stopped and searched by the law – there will be occasions when your senses scream that the only logical explanation for your shoddy treatment must lie in your difference and that, we learn from the wise and learned, has been the way of shallow humanity since the days of Abraham, Othello, Mandela and Sitting Bull.

But we will continue to see coaches in “kick racism out of football” badges, players in message T-shirts and poets reading anti-racist poetry before kick-off.

In reality there is no other way than to speak up against the injustice, as the wise and learned would have us do, since blind narrow-minded prejudice can too often go beyond the football fields.

•Sevenzo, African journalist, film-maker and columnist wrote this article for the BBC.